The World's Most Religious Continent: Africa; What We've Learned

The Pew Forum issued an extensive report on the world's "most religious" continent.

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from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life:
Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa

Preface and Executive Summary

In little more than a century, the religious landscape of sub-Saharan Africa has changed dramatically. As of 1900, both Muslims and Christians were relatively small minorities in the region. The vast majority of people practiced traditional African religions, while adherents of Christianity and Islam combined made up less than a quarter of the population, according to historical estimates from the World Religion Database.

Since then, however, the number of Muslims living between the Sahara Desert and the Cape of Good Hope has increased more than 20-fold, rising from an estimated 11 million in 1900 to approximately 234 million in 2010. The number of Christians has grown even faster, soaring almost 70-fold from about 7 million to 470 million. Sub-Saharan Africa now is home to about one-in-five of all the Christians in the world (21%) and more than one-in-seven of the world's Muslims (15%).1

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While sub-Saharan Africa has almost twice as many Christians as Muslims, on the African continent as a whole the two faiths are roughly balanced, with 400 million to 500 million followers each. Since northern Africa is heavily Muslim and southern Africa is heavily Christian, the great meeting place is in the middle, a 4,000-mile swath from Somalia in the east to Senegal in the west.

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To some outside observers, this is a volatile religious fault line--the site, for example, of al-Qaeda's first major terrorist strike, the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and more recently of ethnic and sectarian bloodshed in Nigeria, where hundreds of Muslims and Christians have been killed.

To others, religion is not so much a source of conflict as a source of hope in sub- Saharan Africa, where religious leaders and movements are a major force in civil society and a key provider of relief and development for the needy, particularly given the widespread reality of failed states and collapsing government services.

But how do sub-Saharan Africans themselves view the role of religion in their lives and societies? To address this question, the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, with generous funding from The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John Templeton Foundation, conducted a major public opinion survey involving more than 25,000 face-to-face interviews in more than 60 languages or dialects in 19 countries, representing 75% of the total population of sub-Saharan Africa. (View a PDF map of the 19 countries surveyed.)

Our survey asked people to describe their religious beliefs and practices. We sought to gauge their knowledge of, and attitudes toward, other faiths. We tried to assess their degree of political and economic satisfaction; their concerns about crime, corruption and extremism; their positions on issues such as abortion and polygamy; and their views of democracy, religious law and the place of women in society.

The resulting report offers a detailed and in some ways surprising portrait of religion and society in a wide variety of countries, some heavily Muslim, some heavily Christian and some mixed. Africans have long been seen as devout and morally conservative, and the survey largely confirms this. But insofar as the conventional wisdom has been that Africans are lacking in tolerance for people of other faiths, it may need rethinking.

The report also may pose some apparent paradoxes, at least to Western readers. The survey findings suggest that many Africans are deeply committed to Islam or Christianity and yet continue to practice elements of traditional African religions. Many support democracy and say it is a good thing that people from other religions are able to practice their faith freely. At the same time, they also favor making the Bible or sharia law the official law of the land. And while both Muslims and Christians recognize positive attributes in one another, tensions lie close to the surface.

It is our hope that the survey will contribute to a better understanding of the role religion plays in the private and public lives of the approximately 820 million people living in sub-Saharan Africa. This report is part of a larger effort - the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project - that aims to increase people's knowledge of religion around the world.

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SOURCE: Pew Forum
Luis Lugo and Alan Cooperman

The report, Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa, is available from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Religion News Service also reported on the report.